(Originally written for the Press Banner, a San Lorenzo Valley Newspaper)
The key to successful dog-cat introductions is gradual exposure under controlled conditions. You want to avoid creating situations where the cat runs away and the dog’s prey-chase instinct is activated. If your dog has lived with a cat and your cat has lived with dogs, they may progress quickly to tolerating one another. However, if you will be introducing adult animals that have never lived with the other species, you should expect a very gradual warm-up period lasting as long as two months.
Step 1: Prepare the environment
Create a safe space for the cat. The cat must be able to eat, drink sleep and potty in safe place without having to interact with the dog. Choose a location that you feel with be suitable for this and get your cat used to it a week or two before the dog arrives.
Step 2: Getting to smell you
One of the best ways to first introduce dogs and cats is via scent. Scent swapping can produce positive associations between cat and dog even before they meet eye-to-eye. I recommend spending at least two full days on this step if possible.
Here’s what to do:
Give each animal a good rub down with a cotton towel then put the towel underneath the food dish of the other animal. Now mix in something extra special with their kibble and serve. Ta-daa, the others scent is now being associated with a special meal.
Put the dog scented towel in your lap and invite the cat in your lap for a good pet; put the cat scented towel on the floor and give your dog a nice belly rub or massage on top of it. Now you’ve associated loving touch with that scent.
Give the dog time to explore the cat’s area as your cat explores the dog’s area. This allows the dog and cat to become even more comfortable in the presence of each others scent without any chance of being threatened.
Step 3: Allow controlled meetings
Controlled meetings are all about controlling the dog, because it is very hard to control a cat. Most people use a combination of tools to control the dog. These might include: a crate, baby gate, tether, dragline or leash.
Give your cat the freedom to approach your dog at her own pace. By all means, allow your cat to walk up and investigate your dog but watch carefully so that your dog does not attempt to chase your cat. Through this process, your cat will develop trust. During this stage, the dog should not be given the opportunity to chase or bark at the cat. Interrupt all interactions that result in either fearful or aggressive behavior. If these responses are allowed to become a habit, they can be difficult to change. It’s better to introduce your pets so gradually that neither animal becomes afraid or aggressive. While you can expect mild forms of these behaviors it is important that you don’t give them the opportunity to intensify. Increase distance or completely remove the dog from the situation if he can’t be interrupted.
A few more tips:
- Arrange these meetings after your dog is well exercised or at the time of day when he is most calm.
- Keep the sessions short, and try to end on a good note. When nothing exciting is happening, that’s good news. If you’re doing it right, there will be no fireworks.
- Keep your focus on rewarding the dog for good behavior, instead of punishing bad behavior. Good behavior is resting quietly and watching or turning away from the cat. When your dog exhibits these behaviors be sure to praise in a calm manner and provide a wonderful treat. If you scold your dog every time the cat shows up, he will learn that the cat predicts ‘bad things’ and be far less likely to make friends.
Step 4: Gradually Provide More Freedom
The final step is to allow the animals to interact more freely. Begin with short periods of time together, especially after the dog has been well exercised. Keep a close eye on them and continue to interrupt all inappropriate behavior. To be absolutely risk-free you may want to use a muzzle with the dog until you are confident that he will not harm the cat. Provide more time together as their behavior permits.
When To Get Help
Seek profession help if introductions don’t go smoothly. Animals can be killed or severely injured in fights. The longer problems continue, the harder they can be to resolve. Conflicts between pets in the same family can often be resolved with professional help.
Cynthia Edgerly, owner of Bingo! Dog Training in Watsonville, CA, is a Professional Dog Trainer & Certified Dog Behavior Consultant.